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When Top Performers Slump

Posted on October 8, 2010 at 1:58 PM

How long is too long to carry a top performer who is not currently performing? And how to turn the situation around? The term top performer is not a title granted in perpetuity, but top performers must not be written off too quickly either.

 

Only very rare people are on the top of their game 100% of the time. Performance slumps happen. A performance slump is not a situation where an employee has clearly broken organizational or legal rules or standards and there needs to be immediate changes or consequences. A performance slump is when an otherwise top performer is off their game. Some examples:

  • A top sales rep whose numbers are dipping
  • A top project manager whose project timelines are costs have moved from consistently excellent to mediocre
  • A high-production claims clerk whose production is falling below normal
  • A supervisor that normally gets very high staff ratings is now garnering complaints

 

Studies show that most people leave their organization due to the relationship with their leader. How this situation is handled can define the kind of relationship you as a leader will have with your team.

 

There is no one answer to “how long” or “how to fix” but there are three steps you can follow to move this problem from a vague discussion about what to do, to a business driven decision that works for the organization and ultimately for the people in it.

 

Three steps: not hard, less pain and better decisions

Steps one and two below can be done concurrently and there is usually some interaction between these steps to get to the final decision on whether and how long to carry a top performer. Step one is often best done as a quick mental exercise vs. a long drawn-out process. Step two may require a couple hours work but most of that will be discussion and coaching with the person, already a key aspect of your leader role. Step three fits into and further leverages the good coaching and personal development processes hopefully already employed by your organization.

 

Step One – Set the boundaries

The purpose of this step is to understand the performer’s and the organization’s context and set boundaries on how long to carry someone and how much to spend in terms of time, energy and dollars.

 

The performer context. Bluntly this is about what this employee is worth to the organization. What do they have in their credibility bank? Ask the following questions:

  • Is this the first slump for a long-term top performer?
  • Is this someone who has had slumps before but has always managed to keep them short and get back on track?
  • Is this a new top performer that is showing tremendous potential and is hitting their first performance slump?

Strong affirmative answers to these questions indicate an employee that is truly worth some time and money. They have built up large deposits in their credibility bank. Affirmative answers to the questions below point to an employee that is likely not worth the ongoing effort.

  • Is this slump a repeating pattern where the organization has already devoted time, energy and dollars a number of times?
  • Is this a top performer that has other performance issues beyond this situation? For example have they been continuously unsupportive of changes, are they disruptive in the group, do they refuse to follow a reasonable process?

No organization is doing an employee a favor by keeping them too long. The longer the slump, the harder it is to get out of, the more demoralized the person gets and the harder it will be for them to succeed anywhere. Letting performance issues linger is demoralizing for the rest of the team as well.

 

The current organizational context. This activity assumes that you are dealing with an employee that is worth some time, energy and money. Next, you need to balance that perspective with a clear understanding of the current organizational limitations in terms of the time and money to spend. The current state of the organization, its revenue and expense needs must be part of the decision making. Answer the following:

  • What budget is available for training if that turns out to be required?
  • How quickly must this performance issue be rectified before the team/organization is put at risk? Larger organizations will likely have more flexibility with this than smaller organizations.
  • Given any other work, projects, recruiting, training etc., how much time do you as the leader have available to support and coach the person? How much flexibility is there in resetting priorities to provide the time needed?

Step Two – Determine cause & potential solutions

The purpose of this step is to dig into the situation and get to the “why” of the performance slump. Deciding how to help relies on a full understanding of the cause of the situation. This step requires you as their leader to talk to the employee; to ask questions, to listen and to probe.

 

While there may be many reasons for a slump, they are broadly categorized here into three main causes.

 

1. Product or process issues. Poor performance from top performers can be an early warning sign of:

  • Product quality issues
  • Products no longer matching customer needs
  • Process breakdowns
  • Customer service issues

Make sure to leverage this opportunity to check for any of these as contributing causes to the slump. It may well mean catching an issue that would otherwise get much larger. Top performers often hit product and process issues faster than average performers. Potential solutions in this case often extend beyond the scope of the individual employee and you. You can though gather ideas from the employee, acknowledge their contribution and work with them to improve their performance while other actions are taken to fix the larger problem.

 

2. Specific issues for the employee. Performance slumps that fall into this category can be precipitated by a number of things. Common situations are shown below.

  • Has there been a change that they are not handling well? Potential solutions will include formal training on a new approach or product and one-on-one coaching to ensure their understanding and setting goals for achievement. 
  • Has their past success caused them to skip parts of their work process? Success can breed a certain laziness around process. You may need to remind them and coach them through more diligent use of the process.
  • Has the employee been focused on key sale/project/issue that didn’t come through or ended badly? In short, have they been thrown off their game by what they see as a failure? Solutions will include reminding them of what they did well during that work and coaching them on next steps to move past this one focus.
  • Is the employee dealing with personal issues that are affecting their ability to focus on their work?

Key to this activity is determining the attitude of the employee. Have they or are they willing to take accountability for their role in the performance slump? Are they blaming anything and everything else instead? No leader can pull an employee out of a slump unless that person is keenly aware of their role and willing to do the work necessary.

 

3. Performer burnout. I do not mean the serious emotional burnout that is well beyond the scope of this, but rather the kind of burnout that happens when a top performer feels as though they have achieved all they can in the role, that they’ve faced all the situations they are going to, that there is nothing new under the sun, that they’ve beat their own past records too many times or that there is no challenge left.

 

This is a much tougher situation to handle and to recognize. It may well be initially disguised as the previous two triggers of slumps. Potential solutions for performer burnout all include providing the employee with a break from the “same-old”:

  • Having them provide some coaching, mentoring or training to new team members.
  • Having them work on a project to improve the team’s processes or technology that will leverage their skills for the long-term benefit of the entire group.
  • Having them take on a leader role either temporarily or long-term.
  • Helping them move on to another role in the organization. While no one likes to lose a top performer from their team, it is better to keep them in the organization than to have them decide to move to a different employer.

While the old adage “a change is as good as a rest” is true, you must also be prepared to set goals for activities during this time and timelines for when the employee will be back into their previous role or moved to a new role.

 

The final test for steps one and two is this question:

Is this performer replaceable with less time, energy and dollars than the time, energy and dollars needed and available to move them past the slump?

This is a business decision. Your employees expect you, as their leader, to make informed and fair business decisions. In fact, they are counting on it!

 

Step Three – Set plan of action and timeframe

The specific action plan will depend on the cause or causes of the slump. Use whatever performance action template you have available or make one up. What is important is that the actions, goals and timeframes are documented and jointly agreed to by you and your employee.

 

Make sure the document lays out how often the two of you will meet to check progress and that you use those meetings to continue to probe, coach and tweak the action plan as needed.

 

Summary

If it is decided that the organization can carry the employee for awhile, you are now in a position to know:

  • How long and at what cost.
  • What actions will be taken to change the situation .The plan lays out accountability and expectations.
  • When to reassess and move to an exit stage if required.

This kind of structured and tough, but fair, approach will set the culture within your group. Your team will know that they will be supported when they have the credibility bank needed, they will know that the organization manages itself and they will know their leader is willing and able to support them uniquely within a common-sense framework that they understand.

 

Cheers!

Brenda

 

Categories: leadership

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